Watkins on Goan, 'A Simple Justice: Kentucky Women Fight for the Vote'

Melanie Beals Goan
Andrea S. Watkins

Melanie Beals Goan. A Simple Justice: Kentucky Women Fight for the Vote. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2020. 296 pp. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-8017-5

Reviewed by Andrea S. Watkins (Northern Kentucky University) Published on H-Kentucky (April, 2021) Commissioned by Randolph Hollingsworth (Network editor for H-Kentucky)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56505

Andrea Watkins on Melanie Beals Goan, "A Simple Justice: Kentucky Women Fight for the Vote"

Women’s right to vote in the United States has received recent attention with the centennial commemoration of the Nineteenth Amendment in 2020, and pioneers such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are generally well known. Going beyond these important figures, Melanie Beals Goan provides an informative and compelling survey of the fight to achieve the right to vote and particularly how Kentucky played a key role. The story is one filled with interesting characters, hard work, and unexpected twists. Goan explores the contradictions and often racist views of leaders in the suffrage movement, along with the several competing strategies pursued to achieve the final goal of voting rights for American women.

Beginning with an overview of the ideas of liberty, democracy, and voting from the Revolutionary and antebellum eras, Goan sets the stage for the work of women’s suffrage in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The push for women’s suffrage gained momentum in the post-Civil War era but also faced increased obstacles as many feared it was too closely tied to radical ideas such as “socialism, communism, anarchy, and free love” (p. 22). The roots of the women’s suffrage movement in abolitionism hampered support among Kentuckians, as did a belief that “in the wake of the Fifteenth Amendment, ... the quality of the electorate had already been compromised and voting women would damage it further” (p. 23). Add to these concerns a strong belief that it was a man’s duty to protect and provide for women, and it is obvious that achieving the goal of women’s suffrage would be an uphill battle in Kentucky and the rest of the South.

Laura Clay was the one to give respectability to the suffrage movement in Kentucky, and the book gives a thorough look into her background and work for the cause. Goan argues that the tireless dedication of Clay was significant for Kentucky’s advanced action on the issue, but the focus on white, Christian, upper-class, and educated women meant that Clay excluded diversity of membership and the potential of other paths to suffrage. This is well illustrated in the latter chapters of the book as Clay held to the argument that suffrage should be achieved at the individual state level, while other notable leaders such as Madeline McDowell Breckinridge worked toward a federal amendment to the constitution. It is in this examination of the conflicting views of women’s suffrage supporters that the work is at its most informative. As Goan writes, “Even women who agreed that the vote should be the goal were divided over the best way to achieve it” (p. 72).

Such divisions led not only to different approaches but also to the exclusion of certain groups. The chapter on the issue of race examines the additional challenges faced by black women. When women over the age of twenty-one were first allowed to vote in the Lexington school ballot of 1895, black women turned out in numbers higher than their white counterparts and showed that they cared deeply about their vote. The result was that more people became distrustful of women’s suffrage because it added to what was already considered by many white citizens to be an uneducated and ill-equipped electorate created by the Fifteenth Amendment. When black women sought recognition of racial injustice, many of Kentucky’s suffrage leaders refused to take up that fight. The National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1903 allowed state organizations to determine their own membership and strategies; thus, southern states could continue to pursue suffrage as a means of protecting white supremacy. For Kentucky, this meant that the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) remained segregated and those who disagreed on this were not welcome.

The other division within the movement that Goan deftly examines is that between urban and rural women. The early centers of the suffrage movement in Kentucky were in the urban locales of Lexington, Louisville, Covington, and Newport. KERA officers sought to bring women throughout western and eastern Kentucky into the organization, but the conservative nature of those areas meant that the movement had to carefully tailor its message. In the early twentieth century, this meant “only by acknowledging deeply rooted values centered on God, family, and community would the suffrage movement gain headway in rural Kentucky” (p. 156). This approach and the involvement of local women leaders such as Alice Lloyd energized the cause and the membership of KERA increased. However, many of the members were inactive. Throughout the book are accounts of the waxing and waning of local groups and over the years they became less active. With the arrival of World War I, suffrage leaders at all levels found that they had to balance their desire to further the cause with efforts in support of the war.

The final chapters describe the dueling suffrage forces’ attempts to influence the Kentucky legislature’s vote on the Nineteenth Amendment and further ratification. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, in ill health but committed to the work, rallied support throughout the state and helped organize new chapters of KERA for voter education. Breckinridge believed that most legislators supported the federal amendment, but she could not rest on this assumption with Laura Clay out pressuring them to vote against it. Clay had resigned from KERA immediately after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in the federal congress, and she turned her attention to preventing the ratification of the amendment in Kentucky. Clay remained firmly committed to women’s suffrage at the state level and argued that a federal amendment was unnecessary. This turn of events—with the woman who had made the cause of women’s suffrage acceptable in the state fighting for the failure of the federal amendment—is poignant, and Goan effectively narrates the ratification struggle and discusses the impact of Clay’s unwillingness to accept a different path.

Goan states that one of the goals of this work “was to develop new scholarship on suffrage,” and that has been accomplished (p. 221). She has provided information on both the well-known leaders of the cause and many lesser-known women and men throughout the state. This is not a history of only Lexington/Louisville white women and women’s groups, but a history of all the women of Kentucky who sought to win the right to vote. Those interested in women’s and Kentucky history will find the work valuable, and it is a good example of how to present a statewide study of a national historical issue.

Citation: Andrea S. Watkins. Review of Goan, Melanie Beals, A Simple Justice: Kentucky Women Fight for the Vote. H-Kentucky, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56505

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